Chapter 8: The Church Against Religion

Dietrich Bonhoeffer
by Dallas M. Roark

Chapter 8: The Church Against Religion

The book that made Bonhoeffer a question mark to many minds was Letters and Papers from Prison.1 Those provocative phrases like "religionless Christianity," "the God who forsakes us," "Jesus as the man for others," and similar phrases appear in context that are only in outline form without full contextual meanings. This is the work that has captivated the interests of diverse theologians who quote it in bolstering their own theological stance.

Will we ever understand the "later" Bonhoeffer? Can we hope to when we have received only tenuous expressions? Are we justified in taking a few personal letters and basing a new imposing theological structure on them? These are some of the problems and implications of the last words of Bonhoeffer. This work is also difficult to treat because of its miscellaneous nature. At best we can only hope to treat some of the rich themes found herein.

The first piece is an essay composed around 1942-43, prior to his arrest, entitled "After Ten Years." It begins with a treatment of the intolerable times during which people had lost their moorings. Evil appeared in the guise of light and all traditional ethical concepts were thrown into conflict. Bonhoeffer discusses the reactions of reasonable people (who are disappointed by the unreasonableness of both sides in the world’s conflicts); conscience-guided people (who are deceived by the seductive disguises of evil and accept a salved rather than clear conscience); moral fanatics (who get trapped in nonessentials); duty-guided people (who never achieve a direct hit on evil); the person claiming freedom (who performs evil to ward off a greater evil); and the man of private virtuousness (who plays the game of self-deception or becomes a great hypocrite).2 Is there a better answer? Who can stand fast? Only the man who sacrifices all in "exclusive allegiance to God." "Where are such people?" Bonhoeffer asks.

People of civil courage were lacking, for the Germans had learned the virtue of obedience. But submissiveness can be exploited, and in the case of Nazi Germany it was. Responsibility is related to free men. Obedience goes only so far. Bonhoeffer then turns to various categories of relationships and attitudes.

1. Success. Success achieved by good means can be overlooked ethically, but success by means of evil poses problems. Success tends to make good out of evil in history. Bonhoeffer regarded himself as responsibly involved in learning how the coming generation is to live in a new culture.

2. Folly. Bonhoeffer regards folly as more devastating than evil. There is no reasoning with, protesting against, or upending the fool. He calls folly a sociological problem, called forth by violent displays of power which deprive men of their judgment. The only hope against folly is liberation, and the ultimate release is a responsible life before God. In the political arena, "what will really matter is whether those in power expect more from people’s folly than from their wisdom and independence of mind."3

3. Contempt for humanity will be rejected only if we realize that what we despise in others is never "entirely absent from ourselves."4

4. Immanent righteousness. Bonhoeffer says that evil carries the seeds of its own destruction. The world seems ordered in a way that the expedient act cannot be turned into a principle without suffering retribution. This affirmation leads Bonhoeffer to set forth some statements of faith on the sovereignty of God in history. God can bring good out of evil, and gives strength in times of distress. He hears our prayers and desires responsible action from us.

5. Confidence. Bonhoeffer writes that although betrayal is everywhere, trust and confidence are greater than ever imagined. In trust they placed their lives in the hands of others. Such trust is a rare blessing and a necessity against the background of mistrust in society.

6. The sense of quality. He takes a new look at equalitarian movements which destroy a sense of quality by destroying reserve. Socially this means a break with the "cult of the star" tradition in society and culturally it substitutes the book for the newspaper, leisure for frenzied activity, quality for quantity.

7. Sympathy. Bonhoeffer declares that sympathy arises with the imminence of danger. Christians are called to sympathy and action when others are in danger.

8. Suffering. In the past one could plan both his professional and his private life. But war makes both of these impossible. Life must be carried on living every day as if it is our last, and yet in faith and responsibility as though there is to be a great future. This is still a germane principle today.

9. Optimism. Pessimism is wiser than optimism, but optimism must not be impugned even though it is proven wrong many times. Optimism — in spite of the day of judgment — leads to building and hoping for a better world.

10. Insecurity and death. Both had been increasingly in Bonhoeffer’s mind as these ten years passed by. By accepting death, each new day of life becomes miraculous. His own death is prefigured in this descriptive statement: "It is we ourselves, and not outward circumstances, who make death what it can be, a death freely and voluntarily accepted."5

The essay concludes with the question: "Are we still of any use?" Much evil has been devised and experienced. The need is for "plain, honest, straightforward men." Is it possible to regain this stance after the evils of intrigue war, and cynicism? 6 Bonhoeffer does not answer his question.

The next section consists of Bonhoeffer’s letters to his parents. In them we are shown the closeness of his family feeling rather than any profound theological views. Bonhoeffer read a great deal in prison. The subject matter was broad: newspapers, novels, history, philosophy, theology, music, and the Bible. He memorized verses of Scripture each day, especially psalms. Much of his reading was in nineteenth-century writing; he had great admiration for its literary output. The letters to his parents reflect his occasional sickness, the growing problem of food, his gradual callousness to prison life, and the irritating desire to get out and on with important things.

While in prison he had occasion to write a wedding sermon for his niece and his close friend, Eberhard Bethge. The "Wedding Sermon from a Prison Cell" progresses in five statements: "God is guiding your marriage"; "God makes your marriage indissoluble"; "God establishes a rule of life by which you can live together in wedlock" (Col. 3:18, 19); "God has laid on marriage a blessing and a burden," that of children; "God gives you Christ as the foundation of your marriage."7 The sermon is characterized by a tenderness born of love for both participants in the wedding.

Letters and Papers from Prison also contains a report on prison life revealing the sadistic character of some of its guards, the injustice in treatment of prisoners, the inhumanity toward the less important prisoners, and the growing problem of food. The lack of air-raid protection was a prime source of anxiety for the 700 men in the prison. Bonhoeffer reflects on his embarrassment at preferred treatment when his position and family connections were learned.

The major part of Letters and Papers from Prison contains letters written to a friend, Eberhard Bethge. This section contains the enigmatic phrases so prominent in Bonhoeffer devotees. In dealing with them we are confronted with the issue of interpretation. How much weight should be given to fragmentary letters in which the author freely acknowledges that he has not worked out his ideas?8 Can Bonhoeffer’s criticism of religion mean that he was bordering on the loss of his faith? Even if this were true, should one give heavy weight to utterances born out of the frustration of a Nazi prison? What is to be made of these statements?

The following items seem to have provoked the most interest. First, the problem of religion. The letter of April 30, 1944, contains Bonhoeffer’s confession of the radical emphasis that his thinking had taken. He wrote, "We are moving towards a completely religionless time; people as they are now simply cannot be religious any more."9 Freedom from religion is compared to freedom from the rite of circumcision in the time of Paul the apostle. Religion is opposed to being a Christian. Bonhoeffer regards Barth’s criticism of religion as his greatest contribution, although Barth does not go far enough.

Religion uses God as the lazy way of explaining the unexplainable. God is on the edge of human boundaries. But what happens when the human boundaries are pushed back and an alternate explanation is given for the phenomena once credited to God? God is pushed further from human existence.10 Countering this, Bonhoeffer insists that God must be met in the center of life rather than on the periphery. He must be found in man’s strength, not his weakness; in life’s goodness, not in death and guilt alone.11 Bonhoeffer’s question boils down to this: If by science man solves the problems of hunger and disease, if by education the problems of guilt, if by psychiatry the ills of the mind, if man’s other needs can be met, what room is left for God? Bonhoeffer rejects the "God of the gaps" for the Incarnate Christ who is in the world, not as an idea, but as Person. "We are to find God in what we know, not in what we do not know; God wants us to realize his presence, not in unsolved problems but in those that are solved."12

Second, the problem of the "world come of age." This term relates to religion’s use of the idea of God. Through science, man has discarded God’s role in the universe. Questions can be answered "without recourse to the ‘working hypothesis’ called ‘God’."13 Christian apologetics, however, has continued in its retreat, hoping to take refuge in "ultimate questions" such as death, guilt, and meaning in life. Thus religion’s approach to man "come of age" has been to bring him to a sense of guilt and despair to make him sense his need for Christ. This "methodist" approach is labeled as pointless (it puts an adult back into adolescence), ignoble (it exploits man’s weakness), and un-Christian ("it confuses Christ with one particular stage in man’s religiousness").14

If we cannot roll back the advances of science, the conclusions of philosophers, the desertion of religion by ethics and politics, where does this leave God? Bonhoeffer answers:

So our coming of age leads us to a true recognition of our situation before God. God would have us know that we must live as men who manage our lives without him. The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us (Mark 15:34). The God who lets us live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually. Before God and with God we live without God. God lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross.15

To be of age is not to be without God. Dropping the religious context means that God as a hypothesis is substituted by living with God in a relationship. God the omnipotent is not known; God the Incarnate is known as he comes to us in his weakness and suffering.

Third, the problem of Christian worldliness — a seeming contradiction in terms according to traditional use — or secularism. Bonhoeffer defines "this-worldliness" as: living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities. In so doing we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously, not our own sufferings, but those of God in the world — watching with Christ in Gethsemane. That I think is faith, that is metanoia; and that is how one becomes a man and a Christian (cf. Jer. 45!).16

Taking one’s duties and sufferings seriously means that we must exist for others. Jesus is "the man for others," and this type of relationship holds true for Christians. Bonhoeffer partially questions the theme of The Cost of Discipleship when it involves trying to make something of oneself, a stereotyped saint, sinner, or churchman.17 Instead, both the Christian and the church exist for others. The church’s role is to "tell men of every calling what it means to live in Christ, to exist for others."18

Bonhoeffer’s attitude toward worldliness seems to arise out of his interest in the thirteenth century.19 Drawing upon his musical ability in counterpoint he described life as a polyphony in which earthly love is the counterpoint to the fixed melody of loving God with all one’s heart. Polyphony may be something of a theodicy in which pain and joy are parts of the total life structure just as bass fulfills the symmetry demanded by the treble.20

Bonhoeffer’s understanding of worldliness shows again in his discussion of the central emphasis in Christianity. There is real danger in calling Christianity a "redemption from cares, distress, fears, and longings, from sin and death, in a better world beyond the grave."21 Christianity is this-worldly for it sends a "man back to his life on earth in a wholly new way. . ."22 Bonhoeffer believed that if the world come of age was to be won to Christ it must be encountered in its strength, not its weaknesses.23

In searching for meaning and application of his thought, Bonhoeffer plays down the traditional idea of repentance as a religious act, concerned with one’s own needs, and stresses rather the positive side of "allowing oneself to be caught up into the way of Jesus Christ."24 Traditional acts of repentance are deplored as mere religious method. In this context he declares that the godlessness of the world perhaps makes it closer to God. Then the thought breaks off. We question whether repentance can be written off so freely. True, its positive emphasis is more important, for repentance without faith would lead to self .inflicted despair. But Jesus began and ended his ministry, according to Luke’s Gospel, with the message that man should repent.

Fourth, the problem of the church in transition. In May of 1944, Bonhoeffer wrote some thoughts on the baptism of Dietrich Wilhelm Rudiger Bethge, his godson.25 Although participating in a rite that was outdated as far as modernity would have it, Bonhoeffer speaks of the future church that will have changed greatly. Its language will be nonreligious "as was Jesus’ language."26 By August of 1944, he urged the church to "come out of its stagnation."27 There must be genuine conversation between the church and the world. In this same letter he proposed an outline for a future book. Chapter three would urge the church to give its wealth away to the needy; clergy should live on free-will offerings or support themselves by secular work. The church’s work is to explain what it means to live in Christ. It should have a courageous word against the vices of pride and encouragement for the elements of the good life. Unfortunately the proposed book was never completed.

What are we to make of the thoughts expressed so vividly in these intimate letters to a friend? It would be unwise to be dogmatic. Can we say that Bonhoeffer qualifies his early works in which he speaks of the visible church as the body of Christ? Does his disappointment with the national church in Germany and then later the weaknesses of the Confessing Church force him to modify his idea of the church’s form? Is there not really a trend toward a noninstitutional but more biblical concept of the church?

Rather than venture too far in a direction that is filled with uncertainty, we had best stop in our conjecture and perhaps plead for the same from others who would interpret these phrases with a content that Bonhoeffer never intended. We may conclude that whatever else one may think about Bonhoeffer, he advocated Christianity without religion but certainly not Christianity without God. The nearness of God Incarnate is apparent in his last words before death: "This is the end — for me the beginning of life."28

In our final assessment of Bonhoeffer we will try to fit Letters and Papers from Prison into the overall picture of the man and his influence on the contemporary theological mind. To that evaluation we now turn.


1. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, ed. Eberhard Bethge, trans. Reginald Fuller and others, rev. ed. (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1967).

2. Ibid., pp. 1-4. There is a similar treatment in chapter III of Ethics.

3. Ibid., p. 9.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid., p. 17.

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid., pp. 25-32.

8. Cf. pp. 139, 184.

9. Ibid., p. 139.

10. Ibid., p. 142.

11. Ibid.

12. Ibid., p. 164.

13. Ibid., p. 168.

14. Ibid., p. 169.

15. Ibid., p. 188.

16. Ibid., p. 193.

17. Ibid., p. 193.

18. Ibid., p.204.19. Cf. ibid., p. 123.

20. Ibid., pp. 150-51.

21. Ibid., p. 176.

22. Ibid.

23. Ibid., pp. 180-83.

24. Ibid., p. 190.

25. Ibid., pp. 153-62.

26. Ibid., p. 161.

27. Ibid., p. 200.

28. Ibid., p. 225.